“The restoration of the forests should be a pan-Armenian initiative as this is not a task of only one person or organization. We have to do this with mutual efforts. I believe it's possible,” says Vardan Melikyan, the newly appointed Deputy Minister of the Environment. We talked with Mr. Melikyan about the main causes of forest fires in Armenia and discussed the approaches fostered by the Ministry.

Interview : Arshak Tovmasyan    Photo : RA Ministery of the Environment


Mr. Melikyan, you entered the cabinet this past summer, at the peak of the forest fires in Armenia. Why do we have this amount of fires? Do we manage to control and fight them successfully?

There are many reasons for such active forest fires, mostly human-related: still burning cigarette butts on the ground, not extinguished bonfires, and other such cases become a direct cause. Another cause is the unsustainable management, which resulted in degraded forests with favorable environment for fires. There’s also a global reason for this – the climate change which caused dry and hot weather in the months of July and August, and the lack of sufficient precipitation.

The firefighting part is organized at sufficient level, all relevant institutions cooperate successfully. For example, Hayantar SNCO employees and rangers of protected areas work closely with the Ministry of Emergency Situations, and the Ministry of Defense joins the operations if necessary. In some areas we also have volunteers from the local communities. All of these are response measures, but we have to think about prevention. I would lie if I said that it’s possible to eliminate all forest fire risks, but we can significantly reduce the number of such cases. Here, we have long-term, mid-term, and short-term tasks to accomplish. In the long term perspective, the goal is to make the ecosystems more resilient via fostering the improvement of forest management. This will take decades, but we have to start the works today. In the mid-term phase, we have to focus on awareness-raising activities and educating people. Finally, our short-term goal is to develop information systems. Currently, the Ministry of the Environment in cooperation with UNDP designs Forest Fires Information System. The latter will enable us to predict fire risks a week or ten-days prior, based on the analysis of up-to-date information received from satellitesand meteorological stations. Depending on risk level, official actions, such as banning open fire at specific locations or prohibiting human access, can be issued.


We saw on the news that starting from October 1, the salaries of the foresters were increased, so I want to talk about the specialists in this sphere. Do we have any HR problems?

I can say without unnecessary diplomacy that yes, we do. We have a problem here taking into account the lack of relevant educational opportunities in Armenia. In Soviet times, Armenian specialists used to receive their education either in Georgian, Russian, or Ukrainian institutes. As a result, we had people with relevant knowledge. However, since the profession was relatively unattractive in recent years, most of the graduates worked in different spheres and had no practical experience. Regarding the increase in salaries, it’s a significant step, especially because at this moment, the wages of only the lower ring employees – foresters and forest guardians – are raised. In my opinion, these people have crucial importance forest management, because they are the ones who directly interact with the forest and respective stakeholders. By empowering the lower ring, we will be able to fight the illegal activities and, from a long-term perspective, even eliminate these.

Elaborating on the topic of illegal activities, namely the loggings, the serious approach of the Government received quite a positive response from the society. What has changed in the outlook of the Ministry?

The increase in salaries is one of the steps towards the improvement of the situation. When talking about the elimination of illegal logging, we should separate the people involved in these activities into at least two groups. The first one includes people who do that for social reasons. When there’s no fuel available and their income doesn’t enable them to purchase it, their primary resource becomes the firewood. For this case, we consider the development of an alternative energy resource market, namely the briquettes, which can be produced from any biomass. Currently, we’re studying the model of Moldova. In just five years, they managed to develop the briquettes industry to a point where about 10 percent of overall energy demand is covered by biomass. According to estimations, we have biomass enough to replace around 1 million cubic meters of fuelwood. Of course, this is an optimistic prognosis but we have this estimate, and even though the part suitable for replacement is smaller, we still have a vast potential.

The second group involved in illegal logging includes those, who used to regularly conduct illegal logging in the forests via exploiting the locals. The latter received money from these groups, but that wasjust a small part of their actual income from wood sale. There was information in the media that the protests that took place in Ijevan were organized by these illegal businessmen and had no social basis. Obviously, in this case, we cannot speak about tolerance. We cannot sacrifice our forests for their prosperous lives. Here, we cooperate with police and other law enforcement bodies. There are police bases established in Tavush and Lori, and there is cooperation with the Inspectorate for Nature Protection and Mineral Resources which has the control function. This helped decreasing the number of cars, transporting fuelwood to the central marzes of Armenia.

However, I want to mention that there’s also legal fuelwood, which is harvested and sold by Hayantar SNCO and it mainly goes to the central marzes because the residents of forest areas either don’t have enough money or they have an opportunity to receive up to 8 cubic meters of deadwood. Of course, we have to be attentive when we see fuelwood on sale, but it’s not always illegal.


But how can we distinguish one from the other?

First of all, they must have proving documents, the so called “forest ticket,” which indicates the car and the transporting person, etc. Recently, during one of our visits to Tavush, we came across such a vehicle. In that case, everything was OK, the information on the paper matched the car and the quality description of the fuelwood, etc. If you have doubts, you can approach the Inspectorate, which has the capacity to verify whether or not the firewood is legal. On the other hand, I have to highlight that selling the fuelwood from the cars can be a case of illegal business.


In the past 30 years, how much damage was caused to our forests and in what condition are they now? As far as I know, in previous decades, 20% of the Armenian land was covered with forests, but now this number hardly exceeds 11%.

Last time Armenia had 20% forest cover was at least hundred years ago, and during 1930’s industrialization and WWII the forest coverwas significantly reduced, encompassing only 7-8 percent of the land. After this, large-scale forest plantings took place and currently, we have around 11%. Here the issue is not only about the forest cover. We can have about the same cover but not the same forest. The species are changing. Our quality tree species gradually disappear. Of course, there are no bad trees, but the ecosystem services the forests can provide depend on the species of trees we have. The second issue is the density of forests. If previously we had locations where the forest density reached 100%, today this percentage too has decreased. As a result, the soil changes and consequently, the vegetation growing under the trees changes too.


Armenia committed to double its forest cover by 2050. Is it a realistic goal?

Whether it’s realistic or not, it depends on us. I think that it’s possible, but we have to use the upcoming 3-5 years for in-depth planning. We have to improve our technical capacities, educate a new generation of specialists, establish new nurseries, find funding, as well as measure the financial and economic effects. We discuss huge expenses but there will be economic benefits as well. Forest, after all, is a life-giving ecosystem and we have to save it.

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